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Building homes away from home: Students go near and far to help Habitat for Humanity families

By By Rachel Miller and Andrew Wroblewski

While some students soaked up the sun in warm, tropical destinations for spring break last week, two groups of students chose to volunteer in either El Paso rain or Long Island's chilly temperatures, to help communities near and far through the University's Alternative Spring Break and Staycation programs.

At the beginning of last week, 12 students headed south for spring break to help a family with three young girls build a new home in El Paso, Texas. The trip, sanctioned by Habitat for Humanity-a non-profit organization dedicated to building homes for those in need-gave the students ample opportunity to explore the culture of El Paso.  

"We wanted to find a place that was more urban than rural, had things to do in the evenings, and was warm," said Ashley Gray, assistant director for the Office of Student Leadership and Activities. "We chose Birmingham, AL; Houston, Texas; and El Paso; and we were assigned El Paso."

"I think everyone else was shocked by the vastness of the desert and the mountains [of El Paso]," said first-year student Zoe Hoffmann. "It was amazing how El Paso and Juarez (Mexico) could look so similar, but have such different cultures and histories."

Besides helping a family build a new home, the trip gave Hoffman an opportunity to shine as an emerging student leader. In order to help raise money to make the trip possible, Hoffmann  helped coordinated events and meetings on campus as the Student Coordinator of Alternative Spring Break.

"We raised money by selling one-dollar cut-out houses for the trip at atrium tables for about a week and also had a crafts table at the Irish Festival," said Hoffman. "I believe we rose about $500-600 doing that, and then the rest of the money was raised through donations made by friends and family."

After a day of exploring El Paso, the students got down to business. The work consisted mostly of cleaning, landscaping, painting, and sheet-rocking.  Although exhausted, students found the work to be quite rewarding. For service trips like these, students typically work for four out of the five days and use the fifth day as a day to relax and take in the city and its surroundings. However, the Hofstra group was determined to put as much work into the house as possible.

"We planned for our day off to be Thursday, but on Wednesday night the students decide to go without a day off so that they could continue work on the house," said Gray.

For Hoffman and the group, the trip was a satisfying experience. "The family was so deserving and hardworking," said Hoffman. "It was an honor to help build their house."

Back on Long Island, a separate group of 12 students worked outside for Nassau County's Habitat for Humanity.

"We wanted to definitely do Habitat locally because [the University's] Alternative Spring Break, our national program, was doing Habitat, so we thought that would be a nice overlap," said Gray.

The students learned how to hammer in vinyl siding, attach roof framings and put together scaffolding. Most of them did not know each other before the program but united under the same goal.

"We all just made it work," said Irene Wymes, a junior community health major. "Wherever we saw that help was needed, we just ran to it, and it was kind of cool to work together."

Administrative advisors accompanied the students to each service opportunity during the program.

"From the inception of the program I knew I wanted to participate as an advisor," said Sarah Young, executive director for the Office of Student Leadership and Activities, who volunteered to go with the students to the Habitat service opportunity. "It was great to see students interacting with other 'regular' Habitat volunteers and learning about building a house and what goes in to it."

Students and advisors also helped out at the Mary Brennan INN and the Freeport Public Library.

"The INN is phenomenal. We work with them on a regular basis, so we definitely wanted to incorporate them because they are so close," said Gray. "It's an easy place for students to get to if they want to continue to do service, and we want to introduce them to places that they can easily do service."

At the end of each day, the students and their daily advisors reflected on their experiences. Gray stresses the importance of reflecting on lessons learned for students participating in community service.

"It's important that when you're doing service, you actually really think about it and who you're helping and what you're doing, and how you're growing as a person," said Gray.

The El Paso group puts the finishing touches to the house they helped a family build with Habitat for Humanity. (Office of Student Leadership and Activities)

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